Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Remembering a Veteran: Cesare Battisti, Alpini Corps, Italian Army

From La Grande Guerra by Leo Benedetti

Cesare Battisti was born on 4 February 1875, in Trento, the seat of the Trentino province, then a part of Austria-Hungary. His parents were well-off shopkeepers in Trento. Although the Trentino had been part of Austria since the 1500s, it was Italian in language and culture. 

Five years before Battisti's birth, upon the capture of Rome from the Papacy, Italy became a unified nation with Rome as its capitol. The movement to unify Italy was called "Il Risorgimento" (The Resurgence"). But, the Trentino, Trieste, and Istria (the territory around Trieste) with mostly Italian people remained under Austrian rule. After 1870 a movement to liberate these unredeemed lands (Italia Irredente) began. Those members of this movement in Italy, or in the "occupied" lands, were called Irredentists. 

Cesare Battisti [Center] and Fabbio Filzi [Rt] Executed 12 July 1916
Aviator Damiano Chiesa [Lt] Met a Similar Fate Afterward

This was the milieu in which Cesare Battisti reached maturity. The Irredentist movement was the subject of much discussion and controversy. The Austrians, of course, were very much against the spreading of this ideology. The double empire was composed of many nationalities, and its leaders were fearful of ideas of separation taking hold, and they therefore suppressed Irredentism forcefully. 

In high school Cesare was interested in Italian history and culture, but in the Austrian-run schools the study of history ended with the Napoleonic era. Battisti began a search for information pertaining to Italian writers and poets and then began to copy parts of their works which were of interest to him. 

His interest in social conditions began at this time as well. He became a school leader and was quite popular. Some of his school friends were needy, and he helped them during hard times. He was able to do this because his family owned a grocery store. Some believe that his future interest in socialism was sparked by these experiences. 

When he was 18 he entered the University of Florence, where he graduated with honors, completing a thesis was on the geography of the Trentino. At the university he was also thoroughly introduced to socialism meeting some of the important Italian socialist thinkers and party leaders of the time. On completing his studies, he returned to Trento where he published a geographical review in which the economy, resources, and Italian cultural background of the Trentino were analyzed. 

In 1911 he was elected to the Diet (Parliament) in Vienna. His agenda was to get an Italian university established in Trieste. Until the turn of the century there was no university in Austria with an Italian curriculum. The University at Innsbruck was the only Austrian university that had a law course taught in Italian. Opponents to this program tried to split its supporters by suggesting that the university be established at Trento instead. Recognizing the ploy, and even though he was a Trentino deputy, he supported the Trieste site to keep the support for an Italian university intact. 

At the Diet, Battisti was sworn in by its youngest member and a fellow Italian, Alcide DeGasperi, who — after WWII — would become Italy's Prime Minister. But the two men didn't see eye to eye. De Gasperi, a member of the Catholic Party, and Battisti, a socialist and Irredentist, disagreed completely. De Gasperi's supporters disrupted socialist party meetings, and Battisti referred to De Gasperi sarcastically as "Von Gasperi." 

Battisti Near the Front

In 1909 Benito Mussolini was expelled from Switzerland and was then sent by the socialist party to Trento to be editor of the party newspaper L'Avvenire del Lavatore  (The Coming of the Worker). Even though he and Battisti were both socialists, Mussolini was then anti-militarist, a pacifist, and an internationalist, and as such rejected Battisti's Irredentist views. Mussolini was soon expelled from Austria and was sent to Italy to be editor of the party paper, Avanti. Mussolini subsequently completely switched sides and by 1914 had become an ardent nationalist and pro-war agitator. 

When hostilities began in August 1914, he left Austria for Italy where he became very active in promoting an Italian war against Austria. He wrote articles for Mussuolini's Avanti, criticizing those socialists espousing pacifism. He wrote to the king and spoke at pro-war demonstrations whenever he had the opportunity. 

Italy's pro-war movement involved several kinds of people with various goals. Some, like the Futurists, believed that a war would strengthen a nation, making the people tougher and more able to rise to greatness. There were others that saw war as a method to unify the people, to develop a patriotic sense in a nation that had existed for only about 45 years. Some, like Mussolini, saw war as an opportunity to gain personal power. Others, like author Gabriele D'Annunzio, wanted a chance for personal aggrandizement, adventure, and honors. The king and some politicians wanted Italy to achieve great power status, to protect and expand its interests in the Balkans, and to gain some colonies in Africa and Asia Minor. Battisti's main goal was to unify all Italians, including those living in Italian areas of the Austrian Empire. His was a patriotism based on an ethnic-centered nationalism that even overrode his socialist views and put him at odds with the anti-war, internationalist tenets of the socialist party.

Later, when Italy entered the war against Austria in May of 1915, Battisti enlisted in the Italian Alpine Corps. He put his extensive knowledge of the geographical area of the Trentino at the disposition of the Italian Army and eventually joined the Edelo battalion of the 5th Alpini Regiment. He received a medal for valor and became a 2nd Lt. After seeing action in several engagements, Battisti was put on the staff of the 1st Army information office and was invited to speak in Milan honoring the Alpini Corps. Administrative duty didn't suit him, and soon, after a massive Austrian attack in the Trentino (the 1916 Strafexpedition), he requested a transfer and received a posting to the Alpini Vicenza Battalion. During the Italian counterattack he was given command of the battalion's 2nd company. His unit was cut off and he was captured. With him was one of his subordinates, a 2nd Lt. Fabio Filzi from Istria, like Battisti, an Italian from Istria, another  Austrian-ruled region.  

The two men were identified as Austrian subjects and therefore traitors. There are accounts that a fellow Italian had betrayed them. The two were put on a horse drawn cart, chained and heavily guarded. In this fashion they were carted off on the long trip to Trento. On the way they were insulted, spat upon, and stoned by people and soldiers who were egged on by the authorities. When they arrived at the castle Buon Consiglio in Trento a group of officials took turns beating the two prisoners. 

The next day, 12 July 1916, at the summary court martial, the two were quickly found guilty of treason and condemned to a form of hanging similar to strangulation. Battisti protested that they had been in captured in uniform on the field of battle and therefore should be considered POWs. This defense was rejected out of hand. He requested a military execution by firing squad so as to not dishonor the Italian Army uniform, but the judge denied his request, and instead procured for him some shabby civilian clothes. Fabio Filzi was sentenced to the same fate. 

Battisti on the Way to His Court Martial

The prisoners were taken directly from the court to the gallows. Battisti was refused an opportunity even to write a last letter home. He turned down the last rites from a priest. At the first attempt to strangle him, the rope broke. According to tradition, when this kind of thing happened, the sentence would be commuted. Instead, in Battisti's case a new rope was sent for and the execution proceeded. Battisti shouted "Viva Trento Italia! Viva l'Italia!" After the execution, Battisti's and Filzi's bodies were thrown in the sewer of the castle with no casket or marker. 

The Austrians photographed the execution and post cards were produced from them. The authorities hoped that this would serve as an example and be a deterrent to other minority groups. Instead the effort backfired, making martyrs of Battisti and Filzi and showing the Austrians in a barbaric light. They quickly realized this, stopped the distribution of the cards, and tried to recall the ones already distributed. But it was too late. The photos became propaganda tools in the hands of the Italians to whip up anti-Austrian feelings even more in Italy. 

The Death of Battisti

Although condemned as a traitor in Austria, in Italy, even today some 80 years later, he is considered a patriot, hero, and martyr. In Trento there is a dramatic monument to him at the site of his grave. In towns and cities all over Italy there are streets and piazzas named after Cesare Battisti. 

Sources and Thanks: Historia, May–June, 1985 [no author cited]. Encyclopedia Italiana, 1932. Photos from Tony Langley, Rich Galli and the author. 


  1. The Trentino, or Sudtirol, was thoroughly Germanic in character. In the 1930's Mussolini tried to Italianize the province by moving in ethnic Italians from the South. Even today, there is a large German influence on the culture of the Alto Adage. Italians wanted the Southern Tyrol in order to have a more defensible border with Austria: to be able to control the Southern Alpine passes.

    1. Today there is a large, separatist movement in the Sudtirol. Proponents have used bombs and explosives to try to disrupt life in the province and are considered terrorists by the Italian authorities.

  2. Another thought-provoking post that shows how relevant the unresolved questions of WWI are today. Just tweeted this one.

  3. The father north you go in Trentino-Alto Adige, the less Italian you hear and the more Austrian things look, until eventually the only people who greet you in Italian are workers in the post office.

  4. Let's face it these Austrians and their German cousins are sadist pigs; they can disguise it using loosey goosey terms like "Francatour" and the tragedies of war. In reality it is a slap in the face for the other side to reciprocate in kind, and you have a very nasty war. Then the losers Germany, Austria/Hungary go wimpering off that they were stabed in the back